Remembering Maria Tallchief

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On this day in 1925, Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born in Oklahoma. She would become known as Maria Tallchief, one of the first ever American prima ballerinas, a feat in a world populated at the time by a majority of European dancers.

Tallchief’s parents were Alexander Tall Chief, an Osage tribe member, and Ruth Ann Porter, a Scots-Irish woman who had once dreamed of being a performer. Wishing the performance world for her daughters, Ruth enrolled them in ballet lessons then relocated the family to Los Angeles in 1933. Tallchief danced with Ernest Belcher, father to dance icon Marge Champion; a student of star ballerina Anna Pavlova, David Lichine; and Bronislava Nijinska, a choreographer for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and the sister to famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Studying with Nijinska led Tallchief to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942. It was then that she became professionally known as Maria Tallchief (she was encouraged to change her name to something more Russian in sound, like Tolchieva, but refused to denounce her Osage heritage.) In 1944, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo began performing with George Balanchine. The 40-year-old choreographer soon became enthralled with the 19-year-old Tallchief—known throughout her career for spectacular precision, grace, musicality, and athleticism—and two years later the two were married. When Balanchine moved on to the Paris Opera Ballet, Tallchief became the legendary troupe’s first-ever American dancer.

When the New York City Ballet was founded in 1948 by Lincoln Kirstein and Balanchine, Tallchief became one of its principal dancers, often acting as the latter’s muse. She pioneered now-iconic roles in Balanchine ballets and with her titular role in 1949’s Firebird, she became a star. She also played the Swan Queen in Balanchine’s version of Swan Lake; and played, perhaps most famously, the Sugar Plum Fairy in his revision of The Nutcracker. At that time the ballet had not been well-known, but Tallchief’s performance was among the elements that made The Nutcracker into a holiday tradition.

With Tallchief in his company, Balanchine also developed the commitment to innovative costuming that carries through to the New York City Ballet today. Though the first costume shop was established with designer Barbara Karinska, the company began working with designers from the fashion world as well. In 1951 artist and designer Cecil Beaton was commissioned for Swan Lake (although Balanchine rejected his headpiece for Tallchief’s Black Swan and Tallchief ended up designing it herself). In later years, the company worked on costumes with the likes of Alberta Ferretti, Humberto Leon, Carolina Herrera, Virgil Abloh, and Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, among many others.

Though Balanchine and Tallchief divorced in 1950, she stayed with the company until 1965, performing with other companies in between. In fact, with a brief return to Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1954, she became their highest paid dancer that year. She would also later dance with the American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the San Francisco Ballet, among others, and work on developing the ballet scene in Chicago.

Recognized for her achievements by the Kennedy Center Honors and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Tallchief passed away in 2013. Throughout her career, Tallchief became known for her outstanding abilities, as well as the boundaries she broke down. As proud as she was of her heritage, she wanted to be known for her skills as a dancer first. “Above all, I wanted to be appreciated as a prima ballerina who happened to be a Native American,” she once said, “never as someone who was an American Indian ballerina.”

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